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Designing Open Space: Program or Not to Program?

March 19, 2014

by Steven Fusco, Landscape Architect

Beals and Thomas landscape architects have been busy creating and rehabilitating several public parks in Massachusetts.  Although each park has its specific set of goals and design criteria, a common question is relevant to every project ― to program or not to program?

Programmed open space generally refers to an area that is designed for a specific user with a specific active recreational use, such as a baseball field or a playground.  Un-programmed open space refers to an area used for passive recreation, such as picnicking, imaginative and informal games or kite flying.

American public parks were originally designed in the “pastoral style” as described by Frederick Law Olmsted, and were intended to be places of tranquility and peacefulness; a naturalistic escape from industrial, modern trappings.  However, today’s parks have become more programmed as meadows give way to the painted lines of ball fields, and intimate open spaces become fenced in and populated with play structures.  The proliferation of programmed open spaces has left many municipalities with ample “open space” but very little “park space.”

Recently, it has been our responsibility to design parks that balance both the needs of organized sports and recreation with a space in which the entire community can compose or animate as they please.  A recent example involved the feasibility of re-use of the former Sacred Heart School property in Sharon, MA.

When the Sacred Heart School was designated for demolition and redevelopment, the people of Sharon had a choice ―create a programmed active recreation space or create an un-programmed, passive recreation public open space.  Because the town had limited public open space and overcrowded recreational fields, the initial momentum was to create additional fields.

The Sacred Heart School is located within Deborah Sampson Park and was adjacent to tennis and basketball courts, and a parking lot.  A field across the street had already been converted to multiple baseball fields.  The Sacred Heart School property was small but would have been a good location for practice or junior soccer fields, and with some modest clearing, could support a full-sized soccer field; a pragmatic and logical solution if your focus is organized youth sports.

However, after three public meetings and hours of healthy debate, the public expressed a strong desire for the new open space to be a pastoral landscape. They wanted un-programmed space, but with an understanding that there could be times that the space would be best for organized “programmed” uses.

Sharon Conceptual Design

Please click on photo to enlarge.

The solution?  Design a field that was graded and oriented like a ball field, but situate it within a pastoral landscape, and use undulating landforms and plantings at strategic points along a circuitous path.   This design enabled us to control the vantage point from which the open field was viewed, screening and revealing it to those walking in the area, and softening the margins for an experience more like a meadow than a ball field.  Re-organizing the landform also served to hide the parking lot from those enjoying the field and created a sense of privacy from the built environment. The walking paths were also critical to the design, with hierarchies of paths designed within the site.  The main paths were wider and connected directly to the existing Deborah Sampson Park trail system, whereas the other paths meander throughout.  Recognizing that the high school cross-country team used that trail system, we designed the main path with the proper radiuses and width for cross-country running.

The design was well received by the community ― we had listened to their wishes, understood their goals, and offered a flexible design to meet their needs.  A flexible design was key to this project.  The approach allowed a win-win solution to satisfy the requirements on each side of the programmed vs. un-programmed debate.

The pressure for programmed and un-programmed space will only intensify as towns continue to develop.  Our duty as landscape architects is to understand both sides of the issues, and provide a design that respects both philosophies.